*Content Warning* This article contains triggering dialogue and descriptions about sexual assault and sexual harassment.
We have all felt the excitement of receiving the acceptance email, planning our course schedules for the first time, and for some of us, moving out from our parents’ homes for the first time. What should be an exciting, liberating, educational time of self-exploration turns into trauma, harassment, and sexualized violence for too many. The feeling of being let down by the University is all too familiar for sexual assault survivors.
A quick google search for ‘UBCO assault’ or ‘UBCO voyeur’ brings up many articles on alleged and proven occurrences—of which there are articles focused on the disappointing and irresponsible response by the RCMP in addition to articles about the lack of adequate, if any, response from the University itself. In a Stats Canada report it was found that “A majority (71%) of students at Canadian postsecondary schools witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in a postsecondary setting in 2019—either on campus, or in an off-campus situation that involved students or other people associated with the school. Among students, 45% of those who identified as women and 32% of those who identified as men personally experienced at least one such behaviour in the context of their post-secondary studies.”
Any non-zero number is unacceptable but to have 71% of students in Canada witness or experience sexualized violence and harassment is unacceptable. The Phoenix asked students if they believe there is a culture of sexual harassment on campus with 53.8% responding No and 46.2% responding Yes. The next question in The Phoenix’s survey asked students if they had ever witnessed or experienced sexualized violence or harassment on campus, with the exact same responses of 53.8% of students responding No and 46.2% of students responding Yes. Does this mean that if we have not experienced it or witnessed it that we do not believe in the frequency at which it occurs?
Tashia Kootenayoo, Vice President Internal with the Students' Union of UBC Okanagan, had this to say about the poll numbers, “What's really interesting about what you just read to me is [...] a lot of people don't understand what is included in the term sexualized violence [...] Say I'm at a club and somebody grabs my ass—that's sexual assault, that is touching me without my consent. Somebody sends me a message on Zoom harassing me in the chat saying something sexual that I didn't consent to or ask for—that is sexual harassment, so I think a lot of the things come down to education. Education is the first step in prevention because people don't fully understand what these forms of sexualized violence even entail and we live in a culture that's not even naming them. So, people can't really speak to that fully because when they think rape, they think someone you don't know coming out of a back alleyway harassing you. They don't think of 'oh my best friend and I went on a movie date and afterward he came onto me in the car and it was inappropriate and it was like a form of sexual harassment’, that’s not what people think of. And I think you're seeing a lot of stuff on social media the last few weeks about [...] men getting sexually assaulted too, and I think that's really important to draw attention to. But ultimately it all comes from these ideas of sexual assault or sexualized violence and not really understanding that they're happening everyday and these kinds of little micro things are forms of sexual harassment. So, when you see a poll like that it just speaks to that education piece still needing to be worked on."
Dr. Parkins, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Advisor in Gender and Women’s Studies, when asked about The Phoenix poll findings, said “as a professor who is seen as sympathetic and who teaches in gender studies, I have had a lot of disclosures over the years of things that have happened on campus, so that's the way in which I see it is through people disclosing it to me.” Dr. Parkins is not alone. Maria, a recent UBCO graduate, said in an interview with The Phoenix that she had two professors she would have gone to had something happened to her. But as Dr. Parkins points out, professors are not trained to deal appropriately when a student approaches them with such traumatic events.
There simply is not enough transparency from UBC when it comes to how common sexualized violence and harassment is on campus and what consequences the perpetrators receive. Do survivors ever find out what consequences the University imposes on their attackers or harassers?
Tashia Kootenayoo explains that in her understanding that "in those situations, students are not really given information on whether a student or a staff member is still going to be in the environment or when they could be coming back. None of that information is actually made available to the survivor due to various arguments of privacy concern. It's really harmful to students and staff members who experience sexualized violence on our campus because how can you feel safe in a space when you don't know if that person is still going to be around, when they are going to be around, if they are still in a position of power—all of those factors."
When asked about the lack of transparency, specifically if the University could allow students to know the consequences the perpetrator received without naming the perpetrator, therefore again, not violating their privacy, Nathan Skolski Associate Director of Public Affairs within University Relations replied, “Students, faculty, and staff are equally protected by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA), which governs what, if anything, UBC is permitted to publicly say. Our commitment to privacy is designed to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and with impartiality. This is true not only for those facing accusations, but also, just as importantly, for those making complaints or raising issues. We run the very real risk of discouraging them from coming forward if they believe their story will be on display in public.”
Mr. Skolski directs students to a recent blog post for more information on the topic of personal information and the University.
Discussions of sexualized violence and assault at the moment ultimately turn to a discussion about the recent charge of the confessed voyeur on campus. An email written by the Engineering department circulated a few weeks ago that addressed the ‘nonacademic misconduct’ that had occurred. Dr. Parkins expressed that, “the fact that it wasn't addressed publicly shortly after it happened is shocking to me," a sentiment The Phoenix found was echoed by many students. Dr. Parkins pointed out that, "there was a predator on campus and that needed to be addressed" continuing on to suggest the school needs to start to "prioritize the needs of survivors whenever something happens. And over and beyond a legal finding, it doesn't end for the survivor. The university shouldn't be tying itself to legal timelines and legal decisions, it needs to recognize that all sorts of things play out with respect to sexual violence that exceeds the frames of the law."
In regard to this, The Phoenix addressed UBCO with an important and timely question: “Since there are people living on campus, working on campus, and visiting campus, is it not their right to know when allegations have been made?”
Mr. Skolski replied, “On the principle that ‘safety trumps privacy’, the university can post a picture and other details of a known offender if necessary, for safety purposes. However, this is rare and most often done at the request of the police, who have a greater ability to determine whether somebody presents an ongoing risk.” When the University was asked why a statement was not released about the incident until after CBC reported on it, The Phoenix did not receive an answer. Mr. Skolski did however provide a link to the University Council’s website which contains Annual Summaries of Student Discipline Cases dating back to 1996. For the 2019/2020 year, there are only two discipline cases of non-academic misconduct and neither are sexual in nature. Either the student who confessed has yet to be disciplined, which one year later is quite frankly unacceptable or the University has no intention of dealing with it. Why is this man potentially still on campus?
From May 2019-April 2020, there were 136 new disclosures of sexualized violence at the Okanagan SVPRO office. Between both campuses, 37 cases of sexual misconduct were reported to the Investigations office, and of those, only 20 were investigated. When an incident is reported there is one person who decides if the investigation moves forward or not. Mr. Skolski with UBC, when asked why there is only one person who decides what investigations proceed, replied, “UBC’s Director of Investigations (DOI) determines jurisdiction to Investigate in accordance with the criteria under UBC’s Sexual Misconduct Policy. In some cases, an allegation may be investigated by both the IO and an external entity such as the police. In these circumstances, UBC’s Sexual Misconduct Policy states that the Director of Investigations may elect, after consultation with the Complainant, to continue with the UBC process or to suspend the UBC process as appropriate.”
The numbers in this article are staggering, but there are many many more that are unreported. In an interview with an anonymous student, The Phoenix was told that they “were threatened when they tried to do something about it,” after a friend and fellow student was assaulted by another student and now are nervous about coming forward. Another student expressed, “I can't wait for the day when the question stops being about the perpetrator’s future.”
So what now? What should the University be doing?
Tashia Kootenayoo describes it as a cultural issue and says, “unfortunately, we exist in an institution and a community that has validated this and said ‘Okay, it happens.’ but not really looked at the root cause of why this is happening. And it’s going to take not only the institution acknowledging that this is happening on our campus and that it is ingrained in the culture that we live in, but it's also going to take them actually placing value and commitments to changing that culture and I think the education [...] UBC does have a responsibility to ensure that their students are safe off the bat, they have a responsibility to place things like Consent 101 in their registration pages when students go to sign up for classes. It’s important for students to understand that these values are important as soon as they step foot into our community. UBC doesn't have control over what happens, culturally speaking, in the rest of society but they do have control over what kind of culture they foster on their own campus.
2019 was the first year the Student Union ran anything for sexual assault awareness month, we ran a march for survivors, we hung a 50-foot banner across the institution saying 'we believe survivors', we held coffee and consent every single day in the commons building, we worked with our community partners to advocate around the sexualized violence policy that was being consulted at the time. These are just the beginning stages, we are nowhere near what it needs to be but people need to understand that these conversations only started happening like 5 or 10 years ago.”